Grant Writing: A Modest Proposal

By Mark Koscinski CPA D.Litt. and Susan Hornak MBA

Many small not-for-profit organizations (“NFP”) struggle with funding their activities. They have limited manpower and resources to accomplish their objectives. Major grant writing requires the sustained attention of a management  often fighting to stay on top of the day-to-day work.

This is our modest proposal. There are other, smaller grants  that can be tackled with only minimal management input. Financial institutions maintain charitable foundations to help  communities the banks operate in.  Community banks are particularly interested in assisting local NFP organizations  by making grants available. Many of these grants range from $2,500 to $5,000.  While not enormous sums of money, they are certainly appreciated by the NFP.  In short, a small amount of effort can bring an out-sized reward.

Fund raising is a major responsibility of all NFP boards, and our board decided to lend a hand in a unique way.  Board members, in conjunction with management developed an initiative called “Ten Grants in Ten Weeks”.  They  contributed their time and talent by writing grant applications to the community banks in the area.  The applications were generally not too complex, and are perfect for small NFP board members to work on.

Here is how the process worked.

Step One:  Management and the Board agreed on priorities for the grant applications.  Ideally, this step should take into account the overall plans of the NFP for the year.  An underlying premise is foundations are more likely to fund specific projects rather than operating expenses. We attempted to emphasize projects or programs where we had already made financial commitment, demonstrating  “skin in the game.”

Step Two:  One of the board members searched for community banks in our area of operation.  This  was relatively simple to do.  Our organization is responsible for assisting the disabled in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, New Jersey. A simple internet search yielded a list of all banks operating in these counties.  We narrowed down this target list further to those community banks with a significant presence in our market area.

Step Three:  Management set up a database  containing vital information the grant writers could use in the applications. The database included things such as a description of the organization, tax  determination letter,  IRS Form 990, Department of Education Form 704 (Annual Report for a Center of Independent Living), audited financial statements etc. This step  standardized information being used on the applications, as well as being a time-saver. Grant writers did not need to search for critical information. Management wisely kept in mind board members are volunteers and wished to economize on their time and limit their frustration in finding information.

Step Four: Board members were assigned target banks. They researched the application requirements of each foundation, and prepared their assigned grant.

Step Five: A short weekly conference call was held where board members could ask management questions about their applications and ask advice from other board members on how to proceed. Board members felt this was an invaluable step in completing their project as this too minimized their work.

The board achieved its objective, and filed ten grant applications in a ten week window. Several awards were made by bank foundations.  Here is what we learned:

  1. Be persistent.  By time we began some banks had already allocated funding for the year.  Even though we did not obtain funding  from them for this year, we were able to get on their radar for upcoming years. The bank foundations now know we are here and will consider us in following years.  The applications we filed for the current year will need to be modified for future use, but they provide a solid basis for future grant applications to these foundations.
  2. Board members are willing to devote limited time to this project.  We set up a time line with an end-date so board members did not feel they were entering into an open-ended commitment.  We all know someone who volunteers at a local charity and believes “the only way I can leave this job is to die”.  We did not want board members to feel this was a “job” they needed to eventually get out of.
  3. Board members spend time with the documents provided.  They get an in-depth look at the documents, and it increases their understanding of the organization.
  4. Documents filed with the government, such as the Form 990, can be used as an effective marketing tool.  Management should look for opportunities to present information about the good work the NFP is doing when it prepares these documents
  5. Local bankers are an excellent source for board members.  Grant applications introduces the organization to bankers who wish to be actively involved in the community.

Make no mistake, writing small grant applications will never be a substitute for a sustained program of  writing applications for larger grants. Nevertheless,  our modest proposal provided an opportunity for our board members to contribute, learn more about our organization, and produce funding.  All-in-all, not a bad result.




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